Interview Date: 01/05/2011
Run Date: 02/25/2011
As an actor, Phil Morris comes by his gifts honestly: you may recall that his father, Greg Morris, spent 100+ episodes playing Barney Collier on “Mission: Impossible.” When that series was revived for television in the late 1980s, father and son even had the opportunity to play together for a few episodes. By then, though, Phil was the series regular.
Since then, Morris has bounced from genre to genre many, many times, and has seemingly done so with ease, based on his performances on everything from “Smallville” (as J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter) to “Seinfeld” (as attorney Jackie Chiles). You’ve also heard his voice on countless animated series, from “Justice League” to “The P.J.’s.” Currently, however, he can be seen playing the patriarch on the TV One sitcom “Love That Girl!” Bullz-Eye was fortunate enough to catch up with Morris while he was in the midst of the promotional blitz for the series during the Winter 2011 TCA Press Tour, so we took a seat on the patio of the Langham Huntington Hotel & Spa and quizzed him about as much of his career as time allowed.
Phil Morris: Hey, Will, good to meet you!
Bullz-Eye: You, too, sir. Sorry, I just had to finish saying goodnight to my 5-year-old daughter and tell her about all the swag I’m getting for her while I’m out here.
PM: (Laughs) Oh, yeah?
BE: Yeah, if I didn’t bring home swag, I wouldn’t be allowed to go away for two weeks. It’s all about the swag when you’re 5 years old, you know.
PM: Oh, no doubt! It’s pretty much about swag when you’re our age, too. (Laughs)
BE: (Laughs) True enough. Well, in doing my research to prepare for our interview, I noticed that you and Tatyana Ali had previously worked together on an episode of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” Well, in theory, anyway. Did you actually work together? Did you have any scenes with her?
PM: We were in a scene where she was walking through the kitchen… (Laughs) …but I didn’t actually exchange words with her. It is, however, one of the most re-run episodes of television that I have ever done. Ever.
BE: So what you’re saying is that you didn’t exactly forge a bond with her at that time.
PM: (Laughs) Not then, no.
BE: So had you been actively looking for a full-time sitcom gig when “Love That Girl!” crossed your path?
PM: I was just looking for a full-time gig, really. I mean, like I said on the panel, I love to work, and that’s held me in good stead over the years. And I love Bentley (Kyle Evans). Bentley and I have really, honestly been talking about trying to do something together for a long, long time, and I like his method. I like his sensibilities. I like this show. I think it shows a lot more than just that we’re funny. It shows that we’re a unit, we’re a real family…it shows a lot of things. It shows a single father, a widower, trying to raise two grown kids in this crazy world, and he has old-school morals and ethics, which is kind of a tribute to my father and how he raised me. I’ve been married 27 years and been in the business 30 years, so…it’s great. I love this show.
BE: Not that you haven’t played a father before, but is it weird playing a patriarch kind of role?
PM: It’s a little weird. All the young guys who come in to play her love interests…? That was my role for years! That’s who I played for years – this young cat coming in, trying to get the girl – and now I’m the dad…and I’m the oldest person in the cast! It’s just crazy to me. I used to be the youngest guy everywhere! It’s just how long I’ve been in the business, but…I think I have a lot to bring to it, because I do have two mid-20s-aged children who are wonderful but who have…well, I mean, you just talked to yours, so you know kids. And whether they’re 5 or in their mid-20s… (Starts to laugh) So I have that experience to bring to this, and I really like that I’m now at that place in my life where I can draw on those experiences to bring to my work as an actor.
BE: So how much of the character was in the script when you got it and how much have you been allowed to bring to it?
PM: They allowed me a lot. (Hesitates) Honestly, I felt that the character was pretty thin when I read him initially, and I almost got upset, because I thought we were jumping back in time. The script was very simplistic and it was…you know, we had to get this show on the air, so I think they made broad choices, and in our acting we made broad choices, which is not always the best way to do it. When I read it, I made a conscious decision that I was the person they needed. And, hey, I’m not kidding! I decided I was the person they needed to do this show, because I could bring not just the humor but the intelligence and the grounding to show that this father cares about his family. Not just an actor who cares about the laughs or the physical shtick, but somebody who really cares about his family. At the end of the day, that’s the only thing that’s important, and I knew that I had those chops. And I didn’t know if other comic actors would have them, and I didn’t know if Bentley and those people would be well served by another actor in that piece. So, yeah…
BE: Well, to move from being comic to playing in the comics, you do a lot of work in the DC Universe, both voiceover and live action. How did they come to you for the role of the Martian Manhunter on “Smallville”?
PM: I auditioned.
BE: Oh, okay.
PM: Yeah, there were a lot of people out there trying to get that gig, and I auditioned, and I thought I did a great job. A few months later, they called and said, “We want you to meet the producers and read for them.” I read for them, and another month or so later, I got the job. And I’ve been a comic lover for years, since I was 6 or 7 years old, so I knew J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter very well. And again…you know, as an actor, I’m not alone in this, but if you don’t think you’re the guy, then don’t walk in the door. I just felt like I had more information on him. I’m a kung-fu instructor and student, so I had a certain…I feel like I have a certain Zen grounding that J’onn J’onzz has, so I can apply that in my work as this character. And so far it’s been really successful.
BE: I liked the fact that they made J’onn J’onzz’s human identity for the series a black man. As a comic guy, I’m a purist, and I always hate it when they’re, like, “Oh, we should make this character black, even though he’s not black in the comics.”
BE: But this is absolutely realistic for the character’s mythos. Sure, he can be black. He can be anybody! Hell, he can be a woman if he wants to be.
BE: Anyway, my point is that it didn’t feel like the character was forced into being black strictly for the sake of adding a black character…which is to say that it felt perfect to me.
PM: And, you know, I asked Al Gough about this. I said, “Did you consciously make him black for any reason?” He said… (Looks completely befuddled) “Uh, no.” And I said, “Well, it was inspired.” Because who better than an African-American to understand the alienation in America? And I thought to myself, “Well, the back story I’m going to give J’onn is that in one of his incarnations he was an African-American.” And, in fact, in the comics, he was. He was a superhero down in New Orleans, trying to bust up the mob. So I used that for me to say, “Okay, well, in his experience as that character, he understood the African-American struggle, and he related to it as a man set apart from his world and his people, as African-Americans are quite often set apart from their world in their own country.” So to take on the guise of an African-American, then he could have the feelings and emotions he has as a Martian and have them not be unusual or off-putting as an African-American. I thought it was genius! I really did.
BE: And, of course, by even knowing about that New Orleans storyline, you’ve fully outed yourself as a comic geek.
PM: (Hangs head low) I know. Don’t hate me ‘cause I read! (Laughs)
BE: “They’re educational, dammit!”
BE: Well, I could spend an hour just talking to you about your voiceover work in general, but do you have any voiceover roles that you’ve done in the past couple of years that really stand out for you?
PM: I took over for Eddie Murphy on “The P.J.’s,” and that show was great.
BE: I wish they’d put it out on DVD.
PM: Me, too! (Writer’s note: Lionsgate’s ears must have been burning, as they have since announced that Season 1 of the series will be hitting stores on May 3.) I just thought it was fun and funny and smart. And edgy. All of that stuff. Thurgoode Stubbs was a great character. I went on this roll of older African-American males, you know? Jackie Chiles and Thurgoode Stubbs were a couple of people I played that were… (Shifts his voice into a deeper register) …old crusty black men! So I got kind of pegged as that as a voiceover artist…and I really loved it! But there was Thurgoode Stubbs, and then Vandal Savage on “Justice League,” and…I’m now doing my favorite character of all DC characters, and I don’t even know if I can tell you what the character’s name is, but it’s for the new “Green Lantern” animated series, and he is so cool.
BE: So is he one of the Lanterns, or is he a villain?
PM: I… (Hesitates, then shakes his head) I can’t. You have to watch, because the character himself even questions that…and the result is gorgeous. (Writer’s note: If Morris doesn’t turn out to be playing Sinestro, I’ll be very, very surprised.) And I’m working with Bruce Timm again, and Lisa Schaffer’s our voice director. These guys are just at the top of their game. DC and Warner Brothers are the best animated house for television in the world. I mean, I think they’re the top right now. Marvel’s slowly getting there, but DC has got it locked. And I love working with them and Andrea Romano every single time I go in. And I just did “Justice League: Doom” as Vandal Savage, so…it’s just a great world to play in. I love it.
BE: Talking about Marvel, I actually just talked to Reginald Hudlin about “Black Panther,” which…
PM: I’m in that, too!
BE: Yes, you are. And you also played Colossus in an episode of “Wolverine and the X-Men.”
PM: Yeah, I did one of the first episodes, but I wasn’t a regular.
BE: So are you willing to go on the record as to whether you’re a DC guy or a Marvel guy?
PM: When I was a kid, I was a Marvel guy. Now, I’m kind of all over the place. But I’m kind of more DC now at the moment.
BE: I’m very pro-DC.
PM: Yeah! I love the writers. I just read “Superman: Earth One” the other day, by J. Michael Straczynski.
BE: I have not read it yet, but I’m looking forward to it.
PM: You’ll love it. It’s a great reimagining of the Superman legend, and Straczynski’s just…well, I worked for him on “Babylon 5,” but he’s just a genius. I find a lot of geniuses in the comic world. (Laughs) One of my good friends is Mark Waid, and he’s just a comic book encyclopedia. I just love talking with them, I love being on panels with them, I love going to conventions with them. And as I was saying in my last interview, I think comic book fans and sci-fi fans are some of the smartest, most loyal fans that you’ll ever encounter, and as a fan, I love their fandom. When I’m doing those voices, when they see me on “Smallville,” I am trying to honor the rank and file, and there’s no one I have to please more than myself, so I hope everybody out there understands that I’m doing the best I can in the role, as I hope that you would do as a fan in the role.
BE: Obviously, you and your father share the “Mission: Impossible” connection by virtue of him doing the 1960s version and you doing the 1980s version, but I have to tell you that my favorite obscurity that ties you into that world is that you were in the movie “Abominable,” which was directed by Ryan Schifrin, whose dad (Lalo Schifrin) wrote the theme for “Mission: Impossible.”
PM: (Laughs) That is a serious six degrees of separation, isn’t it?
BE: It really is. It blew my mind when I read it.
PM: Yeah, I did that as a favor to Ryan, and…he’s a great kid.
BE: I liked that movie. I enjoy a straight-to-DVD film as much as the next guy, but I thought it was particularly fun.
PM: It was. And I had a great time! I thought I came away looking pretty good in that movie. (Laughs) So, yeah, not bad.
BE: So what was it like for you to step into “Mission: Impossible,” given your father’s history with the show?
PM: Surreal. Absolutely surreal. And I think I was the last person on the last train, the last guy on the last ‘copter out of Saigon, because they looked at everybody in town before they looked at me. And then I went in, and it was, like, “Well, this is our guy!” And getting the part and doing the part was, again, surreal. That I would be an actor, that I would be the right age, that they would have a writer’s strike and then decide that “Mission: Impossible” would be one of the shows where they’d take old scripts and...I mean, so many factors fell into play to make it fall my way that it was just gorgeous. My dad came down to Australia, which is where we shot it, and did a couple of episodes – three, I think – which was…kind of challenging, because my dad wasn’t in a great space at that time. But I was in an amazing space, and he and I played well together, and…it was an experience that I look at with great fondness.
BE: There’s another one I’d like to see them put out on DVD.
PM: They keep telling me that they’re going to do it, but they haven’t done it yet.
BE: They’ve done the entire original series. They might as well. I mean, you know the fans, the completists, would buy it.
PM: Absolutely! Which reminds me: I need to go get the box set of that! (Laughs)
BE: How did the role of Jackie Chiles on “Seinfeld” come about, and did you ever actually talk to Johnnie Cochran about the character?
PM: Jackie was another audition. But they came out with this edict that they wanted someone who could do a Johnnie Cochran, ‘cause O.J. was all over the place at that time. So I walked in with my suit, and there were four other guys there in their suits, and we looked like the Motown Mafia, you know what I mean? (Laughs) And I read for the casting director, and halfway through my reading, he goes, “You got it! Let’s go!” And we walked over to Jerry’s office. Larry David’s there, Jerry’s there, the writers are there, and I’m doing my thing…and Jerry says, “Stop!” Right in the middle of my audition. “Stop! Stop!” That’s not good. But it was really hot that day. And Jerry goes over to the thermostat and turns the air conditioning up, and he goes, “Man, you’re so funny, you’re making me sweat!” I got the call in my car on the way home that I got it. And when I went in, Will, they wanted me to be the funniest, the best that I could be. They didn’t want me to hang loose or hang back a step. They wanted me to blow ‘em out. So that’s what you saw. You saw a guy who was given the free reigns and a green light to go as far as he could go…within reason. And it was just incredible! The response to him…I mean, you know, Jackie’s on FunnyOrDie.com now. I’m doing spots on Funny or Die. One of them dropped today, in fact. I’ve done five. Four of them have come out, and we’re getting a lot of views. Jackie’s talking about everything from Obama to Tiger Woods to blacks on TV. I mean, he’s a great mouthpiece, and right now in this country, we need somebody to step up and call it like it is. Jackie’s perfect. (Laughs)
BE: And you do some impressive verbal footwork when you’re playing the character.
PM: (Laughs) Nice! “Verbal footwork.” That’s nice.
BE: Does it take practice to get into the patter?
PM: You know, I don’t think so. It’s really just a matter of being black. (Laughs) The Irish have their way, the Italians have their way, Jews have their way…and blacks have their way. And Jackie…I was talking to somebody yesterday, and we were talking about why Jackie was so funny, and I said, “Well, Jackie could’ve looked like me, dressed like me, but the way he looked, if he spoke like F. Lee…F. Lee, uh, Buckley.
BE: F. Lee Bailey?
PM: Or F. Lee Bailey. Or William F. Buckley, Jr., which is what I was thinking.
BE: Or Lord Buckley, for that matter.
PM: Lord Buckley? Oooh! (Shifts into a crisp, upper-class hipster voice) “Hipsters, flipsters, and finger poppin’ daddies, knock me your lobes!”
BE: (Bursts out laughing) Okay, seriously, how often do you get to break out that impression?
PM: (Laughs, then demands a fist bump) Come on, man! Will’s getting deep here! But, you know, if Jackie Chiles sounded like William F. Buckley, Jr., it wouldn’t be anything. But as soon as you threw in a… (Slips into his Jackie Chiles voice) “Oh? You don’t say! Well, you know what I could do with that…?” You know, that’s a colloquialism that plays well for Jackie, that played well in that role, and I think that’s what put him over the top as much as anything, because it wasn’t Johnnie Cochran. If you look at it, I don’t speak like Johnnie Cochran. He doesn’t sound like Johnnie Cochran. He doesn’t look like him. He reminds you of him, and then he goes in his own direction. That’s what they needed…and it worked really well.
BE: I’ll start wrapping up here, but since you’re talking “black” here, let’s talk about “Black Dynamite.”
PM: “Black Dynamite”!
BE: I love that movie.
PM: Such an underappreciated film. Michael Jai White wrote it, produced it, and it’s killer. One of the most fun experiences I’ve ever had.
BE: Was that a case where what we saw was on the page?
PM: That was on the page. Nobody took a left turn or a right turn. We really just tried to take the fun that we were having out in our trailers and bring it onto the set. (Laughs) So that’s what happened. “Black Dynamite” is a hilarious film.
BE: I actually enjoy the old blaxploitation films for, you know, what they are, but then you’ve got great parodies, like “Black Dynamite” and “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka.”
PM: Yeah, but, you know, I think this is kind of the best of all of those.
BE: It definitely feels the truest. “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka” was more tongue in cheek, whereas “Black Dynamite” takes on the genre and doesn’t flinch.
PM: It doesn’t. It’s unabashed, yeah. And I think it lives in that genre, as opposed to actively making fun of it. You respect it and you honor it, as opposed to riffing on it.
BE: Last one: what’s your favorite project that you’ve worked on that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
PM: I did a miniseries in Australia called “Tracks of Glory,” about a cyclist who…well, actually, there’s two. “Wanda at Large,” with Wanda Sykes…? I thought that was it, man. I thought, “I’m buying the house on Malibu, I got the Rolls and the Ferrari…” ‘Cause working with Wanda, who’s a brilliant person, period, and such a funny, funny talent, I thought, “Man, if we can get her voice right, this’ll go forever!” And I thought her relationship with me was great, our dynamic was great, and…I was really, really bitter, honestly, and angry when it was canceled. So “Wanda at Large” and “Tracks of Glory,” which was a turn-of-the-century piece done in Australia for Disney about a man named Marshall “Major” Taylor, who was the first world-champion cyclist who was black. It was a movie that was very close to my heart, and not enough people saw it, and not enough people know that it’s out there.
BE: Well, Phil, it’s been a real pleasure talking to you. Best of luck with “Love That Girl!”
PM: My pleasure, Will. Good luck to you as well!